The Choke is Sofie Laguna’s latest novel and is on the longlist for this year’s Stella Prize. It is a story that I have resisted reading since it was first published because her stories usually concern the darker side of human nature, and the reader has to be prepared for the immersion into that world. The Choke is set in the world of troubled families where the children are neglected due to the adults not being able to manage even their own lives, but, as with her other books, Laguna’s writing is so beautiful, it is hard for the reader not to keep following the story.
As with the previous novels, the story is told fom the viewpoint of the child involved. In this case, the main character is Justine a ten year old girl who lives with her grandfather. Her mother left the family when Justine was a baby, and her father lives a chaotic life of transient work involving much wheeling and dealing. Although Justine’s grandfather loves her and does the best he can with looking after Justine, it becomes obvious through the story, that she is a severely neglected child who lives in extreme poverty.
The story is a very disturbing and unsettling one to read, but it is fascinating to see how Justine copes with her life, because it is all that she knows and she does have the love of her grandfather. However, as the story progresses and Justine becomes older, more is revealed about the cycle of abuse that the family has endured, but also then perpetuates. It is particularly distressing to see the glimmers of hope that emerge in Justine’s life, only to see them eveporate and watch as Justine slips through the safety nets of missed opportunities.
The conclusion of this novel is both startling, but also realistic and, I do believe offers the reader some reason to hope that Justine may be able to break free of her family’s cycle of violence.